|The street in Montmartre on which my hotel was so centrally situated|
As soon as I left the Gare du Nord, after arriving via the Eurostar from London at shortly after 6 p.m. on a Monday evening, I began walking north on Rue de Dunkerque and was struck immediately by the beauty of the old buildings with their wrought iron terraces. Many of the wooden shuttered windows were flung open as the weather was pleasantly warm. The sidewalks were narrow and people already filled tiny tables facing the noisy street. Motorbikes were everywhere, whizzing past or filling up the curbsides. People greeted each other. The energy was involving, inclusive, dizzying -- magnifique.
My hotel was in the centre of the old Montmartre district, about a twenty-minute walk from the station. There were cafes every other building, interspersed with open-doored specialty food shops selling meats, cheeses, chocolates, pastries, seafood. The narrow, cobblestones roads weaved uphill and down, bisecting and trisecting each other, yet all clearly marked.
I found my hotel. I didn't know what to expect as online the descriptions left by people were fairly polarized. As long as it was clean, I didn't really care about the five flights of stairs. It was cheap and in a fantastic location. When the proprietor began speaking to me in fluent French I realized how poor my language skills were. He slowed down. He also spoke some English. He explained to me that the first night I would be on the fifth floor and the second night I would be on the first floor. At first this irked me, but after climbing the circular stairwell, even with only my small nightbag, I realized that this change would be a good thing.
My room was small but perfectly fine, with a firm bed, good sheets, a desk and chair and a sink with a towel and soap. I had a window, with no screen, that opened onto an enclosed well of internal walls, with the sky above covered with a net to keep out any vermin and flying objects. The cleanliness impressed me. I work in an international hotel as a room attendant, so it is an occupational hazard I suppose, carrying my work with me as a guest. There was not a hint of dirt, even in the window casings.
Evening darkness arrived as I did, and after dropping off my bags, I went back into the streets of Montmartre to get my bearings. I never felt unsafe -- the streets were bristling. Parisians eat late and many of the cafes and restaurants don't open for dinner until 7 or 8 p.m. I was intimidated, as a potential lone diner, by the intimacy of the tiny, circular tables so close to each other on the sidewalks. I stopped at an open air fruit and vegetable shop and remembered my Lonely Planet guide instructions not to touch the merchandise -- a hard habit to break. I thought the price of fruit high, the price of meat not so high, the price of cheese and chocolates welcoming.
My little Lonely Planet book was full of invaluable guidance. Because, as it says, Paris is made up of mostly single, often cramped, households, the people commune in the streets and cafes. Because of this also, I discovered that though much of Paris is fodder for tourists and some tourist traps, not everything is disproportionately priced because the locals live in the same Paris. So, next to restaurants catering pizza and American food to the visitors are shops where working people stop in at the end of the day and buy a takeaway. But this is Paris, so the takeaway shops are full of fresh baquettes, impressive arrays of quiches and patisseries, for a good price. I stopped in one, waited as the proprietor chatted genially with a regular customer getting a baquette filled with thinly sliced reams of ham, and then pointed to a huge slice of salmon quiche, as by this time, tired and overwhelmed, my little bit of French was leaving me tonguetied.
I happily exited the shop with my wrapped dinner in my hand, looking for a bench in a well-lit spot so I could enjoy eating in the midst of people enjoying food and each other's company. Only a block away, I was mistaken for a local by a delivery man looking for directions! It was the only time during my short stay that I didn't have a map in my hand. 'Je visite,' I said, stunned. He immediately found someone who was a local and was able to help him.
I found my bench in the Places des Abbesses and enjoyed my quiche in the open air.
The next morning I awoke in my room with a headache brought on by the previous day's travelling and overexcitement and a rough night's sleep due to the flushing toilets in the hotel, which sounded with the fury of Niagara Falls down the circular stairwell. When I booked, I had not expected an included breakfast, so the fact that the hotel supplied one was a very welcome surprise. Most of the other guests in the hotel were of a similar age and economic background, all a little stunned and sleep deprived because of the thinness of the rooms' walls. But the proprietor's wife was genteel and warmly efficient as she served each of us a hearty croissant, a roll of bread with butter and jams, an orange juice and one of the best coffees I have had in a very, very long time. It must have been perked. It reminded me of the coffee my mother used to make and it washed away the headache and set me on my way to discover Paris in a day.
The plan was to meander through Montmartre, to see -- just around the corner -- a house owned by Theo Van Gogh where Vincent had lived with him for three years, and then to Lapin Agile, on my way to the Basilique du Sacre Coeur perched on Montmartre's heights, before walking downhill to the Seine and the famed sights of the Louvre, Notre Dame, and of course, le Tour Eiffel.
|Les Abbesses Metro station, one of the remaining 1900 art nouveau entrances|
And the shops were indeed there, mouth-watering and tempting. It was lunch hour and the Parisians were beginning to hit the cafes, empty tables set with wine and water glasses, waiting for them. When I reached the back of the Louvre, I stopped quickly without thinking to take a tourist photo, and turned to see a male Parisian businessman giving me an earned disdainful look as I blocked his way to the Metro.
The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, which was fine with me as I was in Paris too short of a time to do museums properly. Even then I had bought beforehand a ticket to visit the Impressionist gallery Musee D'Orsay. I was thinking that this was probably too much to do, especially as the foggy morning had dissipated into a lovely, sunny day.
My plan was to take the Batobus, a hop-on, hop-off ferry on the Seine which stopped at all the major destinations and provided a cruise at the same time. I was exhausted and hungry and ready to do nothing but sit and see Paris from the river. It took me a while and a few enquiries to find a Batobus station, but when I did I settled in for an almost complete one-and-a-half hour cruise to the Musee D'Orsay.
The Batobus is enclosed, which was a real disappointment, as most of the other boats on the Seine are open, though I suppose they must do this or people would never get off of it. The plexiglass, with the sun shining through it, was not the best way to see or take photos. But, with a change of seats, the views were impressive and I devoured a peanut-butter and banana sandwich that I still happened to have, while watching Paris unfold before me.
Riding up and down the Seine is the best way to see the glories of Paris. My first view of the Eiffel Tower was from the water and I was amazed at how delicate and how much like lace the iron looked. After a thoroughly relaxing and reenergizing cruise I got off at the Musee D'Orsay, of two minds on whether I wanted to spend time indoors on such a lovely day. There were police and military everywhere and no sign of the infamous lines I had bought the advance ticket to avoid. Then I saw the banners and crowds and realized there was a political rally of some kind going on. Paris is famous for this! I walked through the flagwaving crowds to the entrance and on the door in front of me and other incredulous tourists and patrons, was a white piece of paper saying the museum was closed and being struck by the city workers rallying in the attached square.
I was a little miffed, as I was out 10 euros with no compensation in sight, and it was the only ticket I had bought in advance. But, I was also relieved, because I knew I couldn't have done the museum and Paris both justice in one afternoon.
So, I headed to the Eiffel Tower, planning to take the Batobus afterwards back to the Louvre for my walk back to Montmartre. I got a little lost going to the Tower because it disappeared from view for awhile and I wasn't following my map, just streets that I thought were going towards it. In the process I happened upon the Rue Cler, another street well-known for its food shops -- the glories of getting lost in Paris.
With the sun setting as I returned to Montmartre up Rue de la Paix, I passed Napoleon's Vendome Column and in Place Vendome all the high-priced retail real estate. Outside Tiffany's Paris, at 6 in the evening, the doors were being opened for a large, smiling group of Asian men. Customers or owners?
|The back of the Louvre -- the Louvre Palace|
|The Louvre Museum|
|The hop-on, hop-off Batobus|
|Strikers closed down the Musee D'Orsay|
|Napoleon's Vendome Column|
|The Palais Garnier, famed opera house|
Exhausted and starving, I dropped my bags back into my new room on the first floor of my hotel (so glad I didn't have to walk up five flights) and headed off to choose a cafe for my Parisian feast. If I'd had another day in Paris I probably would have felt comfortable eating solo outdoors, but I was too tired to try anything more adventurous.
It was 8 p.m. before I settled on the cafe directly opposite my hotel, the Cafe Burq, and it was a good choice. I ordered the three-course meal, with some scrutiny understanding most of what I was ordering: an artichoke appetiser, strips of duck for the main course, and a cheese plate for dessert, with a glass of red house wine. It was empty at 8 p.m. when it opened but diners came in as I ate and most of them were Parisians: a family with two teens, who began playing cards as they awaited their dinner, a bilingual couple with an American guest, two Parisian gentlemen. Faultless and sublimely good. I realized I hadn't had balsamic vinegar since I've been to the UK and it's on my grocery list now.
The toilets didn't cascade as loudly on the first floor of my hotel as they did from the fifth, and I was so tired it wouldn't have mattered if they had. My time in Paris was ending too soon. Another excellent cup of coffee with my breakfast in the morning and I was off to take a walk through Montmartre Cemetery before catching the Eurostar back to London shortly after noon.
Le Cemetiere Montmartre, the final resting place of famous and non-famous Parisians, was the first above-ground cemetery I have visited. I don't know if this is the reason I disliked it. I have never had a problem visiting cemeteries before, and generally find them restful, peaceful places. This cemetery is picturesque enough, but I forced myself to go through it. For some reason, beyond reason, I just wanted to get out of it as soon as I entered.
I didn't want my last memories of Paris to be dark ones, so when I re-entered the streets of Montmartre I had chocolate on my mind -- a darkness of a different kind. Two liquor-filled cherry bonbons later and the cemetery was out of mind. Determined to keep Paris with me awhile longer, I stopped at an open air baquette shop and picked up a lovely-looking sandwich for lunch on the train. More balsamic vinegar -- and the taste still lingers!
Paris is the most visited city in the world for good reason.